How much does it take to cross the line into defamation? Far, far more than the plaintiff in this case would have hoped.
It started as so many defamation cases do: with the president of a property association drawing the criticism of other residents. Anthony Milazzo -- winner of the condo association's presidential election (and local dentist) -- was accused of many things by residents on a self-appointed watchdog's blog. As Eric Goldman points out, the blog's owners were rather proud of the site's ability to spread criticism and harvest outraged responses.
A few self-described “troublemaker” residents (as they proudly declare, “We’re the sand in the oyster”) run a blog monitoring the association, including breaking news coverage on issues like a cost overrun on hallway renovations and repairs made using “degraded cement.” After an election for association leadership, a losing candidate blogged that the winner, Milazzo, rigged the election; subsequent posts accused the winner of other malfeasances.
The court notes the posts following the disputed election were far from flattering. Some of the residents' posts are quoted in the court's opinion [PDF]. The posts make claims of election rigging, the (nonspecific) breaking of laws, a comparison to North Korea's government, and this bit of word coining:
"As to the phrase 'a milazzoed moment,' that's a regional colloquialism used to describe those instances when truth gets twisted, raped, then beaten into a sweet hollow mush that's known to trigger the gag reflex and associated depression. Fits of socially inappropriate laughter have also been documented."
Milazzo was obviously unhappy with these portrayals. More specifically, he was miffed the site had chosen to include a link to his dental practice in one of the posts, which he claimed led to quantifiable harm to his day job:
Milazzo asserted that because of defendants' defamatory statements, for the period from 2014 to 2016, his dental practice experienced a decline in: (1) patient visits from 546 to 428; (2) new patients from 351 to 268; and (3) total days worked from 162 to 104 (annualized).
All of Milazzo's claims fail. The court finds the content of the blog was indeed "offensive, rude, and annoying," but it was not defamatory. Goldman's sums up:
The vote rigging discussion expressly acknowledged it lacked supporting evidence. The discussion claiming Milazzo broke 3 laws didn’t specify which laws. The blog posts that “portray Milazzo as an unsavory, untrustworthy and crooked president incapable of effectively operating the condominium association” were all protected opinions and weren’t capable of verification. Regarding some blogged statements, the court says “an investigation of those claims would be fruitless given their overly vague, broad and conclusory nature lacking any basis in fact.”
Talking smack isn't defamation -- at least not in this case. Goldman is somewhat alarmed to see the court actually attempt to tackle the defamation-via-hyperlink argument ("The court seems to imply that the presence of the outlink leads to more inbound search engine traffic from people searching for Milazzo, which is just wrong."), but seeing as it has no bearing on the outcome of the case, he gives it a pass.
Indeed, the blog's self-proclaimed "sand in the oyster" status may have helped the defendants' defamation defense. As the court points out, context matters.
[W]hen read in literary and social context, it is apparent that each of the complained of defamatory statements were an expression of opinion reflecting dissatisfaction with Milazzo and the election results, but were not factual statements. Although all five statements portray Milazzo in a negative light, the statements consist of the author's unsubstantiated rhetoric and opinionated editorial comments, often times resorting to hyperbole. Nothing in the identified statements would cause a reasonable person to believe they were statements of fact; instead, the statements were accusations ambiguous in nature and lacking any supportable basis.
Unfortunately, defending against these defamation claims still cost the defendants money. An anti-SLAPP law, either at the state level (Illinois) or federal, might have allowed the defendants to recover their costs. At the very least, it may have caused Milazzo to think twice before firing off a lawsuit in the face of hyperbolic criticism.